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Big 12 Preview

Sooners no longer superhuman; is it Texas' turn?

Posted: Monday August 15, 2005 11:40AM; Updated: Monday August 15, 2005 11:40AM
Selvin Young
Selvin Young (3) is hoping to pick up where Cedric Benson left off in the Texas backfield.
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images
The Skinny
Team on the rise Iowa State
Team on the decline Oklahoma
Toughest schedule Colorado
Most favorable schedule Nebraska
Coach on the hot seat Gary Pinkel, Missouri
Newcomer to watch Marlon Lucky, RB, Nebraska
Game of the Year Texas at Ohio State, Sept. 10

By Stewart Mandel, SI.com

It's the moment the rest of the Big 12 has been waiting for the past five years. Oklahoma, the conference's reigning power dating to Bob Stoops' second season, may have some chinks in its armor. Gone are QB Jason White, WR Mark Clayton, OL Jammal Brown and seven other veterans taken in last spring's NFL Draft. The Sooners aren't exactly barren, mind you -- they still have the greatest freshman performer in history, RB Adrian Peterson -- but they may be vulnerable while settling on a new quarterback and working through growing pains elsewhere in the starting lineup.

The obvious heir to the throne is Texas, coming off an 11-1 season that culminated in a dramatic Rose Bowl win over Michigan and boasting 16 returning starters, most notably electrifying QB Vince Young, but the Longhorns, if you aren't aware, haven't beaten the Sooners in six years and have a daunting road trip to Ohio State before they even make it to the Red River Shootout. Mack Brown's team is oozing with talent and starts out as the clear favorite, but few would be surprised if they slip up along the way. Texas A&M and Texas Tech both pose challenges in UT's own division.

Then there's that mess known as the North division, whose six teams went 0-15 against the South's top five last season. The North can't get any worse, but can it challenge whoever emerges from the South? Much depends on how dramatically, if at all, Nebraska improves in its second season under Bill Callahan, but literally any of the six North squads could wind up in the title game. That includes Missouri, last year's favorite before going into a tailspin; Iowa State, one of the league's brightest young teams; and Kansas State, which looks to return to respectability after enduring Bill Snyder's worst record (4-7) since his debut season 16 years ago.

   Stewart Mandel's Projected Standings
   (Overall record in parentheses; ties are broken by projected head-to-head outcome)
1   Iowa State
Once they snapped a 13-game conference losing streak, the Cyclones came on strong late last season, finishing 7-5 behind the impressive freshman passing tandem of QB Bret Meyer and WR Todd Blythe. Along with sturdy RB Stevie Hicks and an improved line, ISU's offense should be more explosive. Its defense, which was surprisingly strong last year, loses a couple of stalwarts but returns plenty of experience.
2   Nebraska
Callahan is hoping juco-transfer QB Zac Taylor or freshman Harrison Beck can better grasp the West Coast offense than did the departed Joe Dailey. A strong backfield, led by Cory Ross, and some new receivers should help, but there will be bumps in the road. The Huskers' defense struggled against the pass last season and must replace three high NFL Draft picks. Several juco imports will need to step up and fill the holes.
3   Kansas State
The Wildcats' demise last season was puzzling, especially considering they had phenomenal RB Darren Sproles. Quarterback problems were largely to blame, but Snyder's usually dominant defense was also rather ordinary. The return to health of one-time Butkus candidate Ted Sims should help that side of the ball. The hunch is the athletic Allen Webb will emerge at quarterback, but a young O-line needs to develop quickly.
4   Missouri
Pinkel, under fire for the way star QB Brad Smith and the team regressed last season, has installed an Urban Meyer-style spread offense to better utilize Smith as a runner. The offensive line should improve, but sophomore Tony Temple needs to emerge as a dangerous tailback. The Tigers' 5-6 campaign last year came despite fielding the nation's 14th-ranked defense, which must replace eight starters.
5   Colorado
The Buffs somehow won eight games last season despite having the nation's 85th-ranked offense and 94th-ranked defense. They return 17 starters but lose arguably their most important player, RB Bobby Purify, and, with no sure replacement in sight, their flaws are likely to be exposed against a grueling schedule that includes Miami, Texas and Texas A&M. They do boast the nation's top kicker, Mason Crosby.
6   Kansas
The Jayhawks have the potential to field one of the conference's top defenses, with standout CB Charles Gordon and LB Nick Reid headlining a cast of eight returning starters. It's unclear, however, how they'll get any production out of an offense in which both quarterback candidates, Adam Barmann and Jason Swanson, struggled mightily last season, and in which the backfield and receiving corps are both depleted.
1   Texas
Young is more explosive than any running back the 'Horns have, but his maturation as a passer -- as well as that of the receiving corps -- will make Texas that much more dangerous. New RBs Selvin Young and Ramonce Taylor will benefit from a dominant offensive line. The defense will miss all-everything LB Derrick Johnson but returns nine starters and gains a tremendous coordinator in Auburn's Gene Chizik.
2   Oklahoma
Peterson is the one certainty on offense, but defenses will be able to gang up on him more unless the new QB, either Paul Thompson or Rhett Bomar, and the young linemen and receivers develop quicker than expected. The Sooners' defense lacks the big names of the past but is still stocked with talent, led by DT Dusty Dvoracek and LB Rufus Alexander, and should be better against the pass.
3   Texas Tech
This should be Mike Leach's best squad to date. As we know well by now, whoever the quarterback, Texas Tech will throw for a ton of yards. This year it's fifth-year senior Cody Hodges, who will get to work with star WR Jarrett Hicks and versatile RB Taurean Henderson. More importantly, the Red Raiders started to turn the tide on defense last season and bring back eight starters.
4   Texas A&M
The Aggies struggled down the stretch in 2004, losing four of their last five, but showed flashes of a potential breakthrough before that. Senior Reggie McNeal should be one of the nation's top quarterbacks and will have no shortage of weapons at his disposal. The question is whether the defense will return to its Wrecking Crew stature after ranking 93rd nationally against the pass last season.
5   Oklahoma St.
Promoted head coach Mike Gundy hired Florida's Larry Fedora as his offensive coordinator, and he's likely to open up the offense to exploit QB Donovan Woods' abilities a thrower and runner. For the first time in years, though, the Cowboys lack a workhorse tailback. Former Chicago Bears assistant Vance Beford is charged with improving a defense that has continually struggled.
6   Baylor
The Bears have improved noticeably under third-year coach Guy Morriss, but unfortunately, they play in the toughest division in the country. The offense has a chance to make some noise with emerging QB Shawn Bell and heralded freshman WR David Gettis. Opposing offenses were able to walk all over Baylor's defense last season, though. Punter Daniel Sepulvea is one of the Bears' best weapons.